Administrative Assistants Coping with Conflicting Priorities

An Administrative Assistant’s Guide to Coping With Conflicting Priorities

One of the biggest issues executive assistants consistently report is ineffective time management. Let’s face it: your days are chaotic. Administrative professionals are notoriously over-worked. It can often feel like there’s “too much to do and not enough time.” Executive assistant tools and resources can feel limited. Even the most dedicated administrative professional can fall victim to everyday productivity pains like procrastination, unrealistic deadlines, unwanted distractions, and lack of organization. You’re pulled in a million different directions, sometimes with multiple leaders to support. Deadlines press down on you, distractions steal valuable time, and there never seems to be quite enough hours in the day to get it all done.

It’s critical to take control of your workload and learn to effectively implement strategies that maximize your day!

Managing Competing Priorities When Everything is Important

“There is no way I can get it all done!”

I’ve heard this before, and I understand how you feel. The executive assistant daily checklist can be long and overwhelming. In fact, you may feel so overwhelmed that it stops you in your tracks. It creates paralysis because there’s just so much to do it prevents you from accomplishing anything at all. Don’t let that happen!

While it’s incredibly easy to get overwhelmed with all the tasks assigned to you, the most effective way to manage massive to-do lists is to prioritize them. Prioritizing means using your strategic thinking, long-range vision, and intimate knowledge of your leader’s priorities and objectives to determine which tasks are most important at each moment. Give those tasks more of your attention, energy, and time.

Prioritizing is about making choices. To prioritize effectively, you need to be able to recognize what is important, as well as see the difference between urgent and important.

Let’s face it: If you’re a busy assistant (like so many of us are), there will be days where you simply can’t get it all done. Managing conflicting priorities is a reality of our industry. When those days happen, it can feel awful. Failing to prioritize all your projects and tasks can result in:

  • Missed deadlines
  • Overlooked assignments
  • Increased stress
  • Diminished productivity
  • Growing frustrations
  • A feeling of failure
  • Fractures between you and your executive

Executive Assistant Best Practices

So how do you learn to demonstrate both resilience and an ability to manage multiple and conflicting priorities? Employing some executive assistant best practices and insider tips and tricks will go a long way in helping you become the master of your day.

The first thing you need to do is identify all the tasks you need to complete and put them on a list. I call this your, “Master List”. Always keep your Master List up to date. It will be constantly changing. You’ll accomplish tasks and mark items off the list, and you’ll also be assigned new tasks. Your Master List will serve as your go-to guide on what needs to get done!

Once you’ve established your Master List, start thinking about how it should be organized. Here are some of the easiest tips for prioritizing projects and tasks on your Master List:

  • Focus on high-value activities.
  • Focus on and finish all the important, urgent tasks. (These are the ones that would have a major negative impact if you did not get them done.)
  • Start with the end in mind. Ask yourself, “What will be the result if I do not get this done today?”
  • Ask for specific deadlines. Don’t accept “ASAP” as a deadline.
  • If you support multiple leaders and feel conflicted as to what takes precedence, ask the group to decide the order and then tell you.
  • Early in the day, clarify the top three items that must be accomplished that day.
  • Establish huddles with your leaders so you can discuss the day or week’s priorities.
  • Make deadlines public information! Inform all members you support through a status update sheet or form.

As you begin to use these time management methods to better organize your day, you should also take the time to think about how YOU work best. Being more aware of your habits will also help you structure your day. I recommend working on your most complex projects and tasks during your most productive time of day. For some, that may be early morning and others may be most productive in the afternoon. Whatever your sweet spot is, ensure that your daily tasks are structured in such a way that you reserve simple, mundane tasks for your less productive times and the more complex, pressing projects for your most productive times.

Once you’ve implemented the recommendations above, you can put in place another airtight system that will help you prioritize your day. I’ve developed a simple method to help you do this quickly and efficiently. Try assigning each task on your Master List an A, B, or C priority based on the following formula:

  1. An “A” priority is a task that is extremely important. These items need to be completed in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours.
  2. A “B” priority is a task that is moderately important. These items need to be completed within three to four days.
  3. A “C” priority is a task that is not important or pressing. These items need to be completed in the next three to four weeks (or longer).

The best practice is to establish your coding system WITH your leader. They too should understand what an A, B, and C priority mean. That will make it easier for them when they are assigning tasks to you and will help ensure that you’re both on the same page and working together towards a common goal! The more closely you’re willing to work with your leaders, the more impressed they’ll be with your organization and communication.

Next, before you start your workday, identify your top five priorities. Keep your daily list to these top five items to avoid becoming overwhelmed. This will help you feel like you have control over your day instead of feeling like you are being controlled. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted by the larger (and less critical) Master List. If you stay focused and mark items off your list, at the end of the day, you will feel good about your accomplishments!

As the day continues, you’ll also need to reserve time to reassess. Remember to be flexible and understand that sometimes you can’t get to every task every day. Guess what? That’s ok! Think to yourself, “If I have to leave in an hour, what do I absolutely need to get done?” This will help you stay focused on what’s most important and not let all the other tasks mire you in madness.

Of course, these categories can shift as the day passes and business fluctuates (especially the A’s and B’s). When you set priorities for items on your to-do lists, keep asking yourself if any of your tasks can be eliminated or delegated. When unexpected opportunities or activities come your way, you may need to make a quick judgment for prioritization. Trust your gut instinct and retain clarity on what really needs to be done that day.

If your priorities have a sudden shift in the day, simply stop work on your current task (think of it like pressing the pause button) and start work on your new priority. Focus on that priority until that task is done. Then you can easily transition back to your original task (press play again). Work smarter. It’s not about spinning your wheels frantically. It’s about being productive! It is not about getting faster. It’s about putting your energies where they are most needed when they are most needed. It’s the reason why you must learn your leader and know the business so that you can put those factors into play when you are prioritizing.

By putting into place these methods for effective prioritization, you’ll find that your days are transformed. You’ll likely be accomplishing more and producing a higher quality level of work. Why? Because you have taken control of your day!

Mastering prioritization is a key element for any administrative assistant’s professional growth. Our Get Things Done & Control Your Day – Recorded Webinar provides the practical tools needed to stay on top of your ever-increasing to-do list and leave the office each day with a sense of true accomplishment and peace of mind.


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